Solid Shooter, Lots of Interesting Twists
Before you ask, I have no idea what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. actually stands for. This is a game I saw on a Steam sale a couple months ago for about $20, in a pack that actually included this game's predecessor S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. I jumped on the deal, downloaded the game, and proceeded to ignore it until a couple weeks ago. Now that's I've finished the game, I have to say, Call of Pripyat was definitely worth the price.
You start with a suit, a gas mask, and an AKU; welcome to the Zone
There have been three Stalker games so far; Shadow of Chernobyl, which I actually finished and thought was a very good game (despite how buggy and rough it could be at times). The second one, Clear Sky, I never touched - it's apparently a prequel to the first and third game anyway. The one I'm actually reviewing here is the third game, Call of Pripyat. This is the most polished, stable, and well-made of these games to date - it ends up being less buggy than Fallout 3 or New Vegas, but that's not saying much. What's important is that this is a huge step up from the first game, while still keeping everything that was good about the original (and adding some new stuff as well).
Pripyat is the abandoned city just outside the reactor complex - it's also a f***ing creepy place to be
The universe of the Stalker games is set in the Zone, an area that actually exists in northern Ukraine around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Just like the real world, nobody lives in the Zone and it's an extremely radioactive place full of deserted buildings and abandoned vehicles. However, unlike the real world, the radiation has caused some seriously crazy s*** to happen. Unexplained anomalies, many of which are deadly, have appeared. Animal and plant life has mutated horrifically within a matter of years. And worst of all, the Zone seems to be expanding. However, the unique conditions of the Zone has created incredible objects - called Artifacts - with amazing properties. These are worth a lot of money and bring Stalkers to the Zone; the treasure-hunting protagonists and antagonists of this eerie, messed up area.
No video game is complete until you're shooting at zombies
Now that I've explained the basics, let me explain it another way; this game feels like a more realistic version of the modern Fallout games from Bethesda. It doesn't have the same size or scope, nor does it allow quite the same freedom of choice, but what it does do in many ways it does better than Fallout. The guns are all basically real weapons, as are ammunition types, and gunplay feels a lot more realistic and satisfying. There's a full equipment and inventory system, and you'll have to manage how much weight you carry as you travel through the Zone.
Fundamentally, though, this is a First Person Shooter. You'll be collecting guns, ammo, grenades, and other tools for killin'. The things you kill are actually pretty varied and make it a fun experience; other Stalkers might not like you. Bandits want to steal your stuff. There are zombies (they can use guns, so watch out). And there are a wide variety of mutants, from psychic Pseudodogs to hideously powerful Chimeras. The shooting in this game feels pretty good; more like a real first person shooter as opposed to a first person RPG. The AI is generally a reasonable foe, although they sometimes feel a bit unfair when they manage to hit you repeatedly in the dark with no light or night vision. But otherwise, the first person shooting is good here.
Well lookie here, I done bagged me a... uhhh...
The rest of the game, and I'd say this is the bulk of it, is about traversing and exploring the Zone. The map is divided into three main areas, all of which aren't huge but are certainly big enough to make exploring interesting. There is a quest marker which makes finding mission objectives pretty simple; finding Artifacts, which sell for a lot of money, is somewhat more difficult. Areas with anomalies in them are often invisible to the naked eye; make one bad step and you could be engulfed in flame, showered with caustic chemicals, or even crushed by a gravitational field. Traversing these requires some patience and the ever-handy bolts, which you can throw around to see what kind of danger lies ahead. Wandering these abandoned areas and braving anomalies, mutants, and radiation makes exploring a really fulfilling activity in this game; it ends up being one of its greatest strengths.
Call of Pripyat has a fairly large number of side quests, allowing you to make a lot of extra money to upgrade your armor and weapons to a considerable degree. The main game will last about six to eight hours, but the side content could definitely keep you occupied for a lot longer than that; I haven't done everything yet and I'd estimate you could get a good thirty hours easy out of all the content this game has to offer. The main storyline of the game is, to be frank, pretty dull, but the backdrop to the events of this game is interesting. And, in this game's defense, the side quests make it more than interesting enough to bear.
No matter what life throws at you, an RPK machine gun makes it easier
Throughout the Zone you'll see abandoned Soviet vehicles from the 80's, crumbling apartment blocks, disused industrial facilities, and more than a couple underground bunkers. The game's engine does a fantastic job of immersing you into this world; it's creepy as hell, and that's what's so great about it. The music is simple but fits the theme perfectly. However, as good as those things look, there are parts of the game that don't hold up so well. Parts of the terrain seem washed out, and the default render distance on vegetation just makes this worse in many areas. Animations are often pretty stiff, and the English voice acting for the characters is often laughably bad.
Still, apart from terrible voice acting, some animation issues, and a bit of a boring story, Call of Pripyat is a great experience. This is one of the best, if not the best, eastern European games I've played and it certainly holds up to western titles (like Fallout) just fine, despite somewhat similar content and focus in some ways. I'd highly recommend this to any first person shooter fan; this is a definite BUY game and I'd say it would be worth up to $40 on its own. Luckily, with Steam, you might be able to find a deal at some point - and when that day comes, there's no good excuse to ignore Call of Pripyat.